Trickle works the economy

Shipping: “Rinnsal” Rhine threatens industry

Transport on Europe's most important waterway threatens to come to a standstill this year due to heat and drought. The economy draws up emergency plans.

Berlin. For the first time in living memory, the busy shipping traffic on the Rhine came to a standstill last year. Severe drought and melting glaciers in the Alps have made Europe's largest river, which is an extremely important transport route, impassable. According to economists, this was one of the reasons for the slowdown in German economic growth last year.

This historic event could repeat itself in a few weeks given the scant rainfall and persistent heat. Because the level at river kilometer 546 in Kaub in Rhineland-Palatinate has already dropped to about 150 centimeters - that's half the level a month ago. There are already restrictions for heavy goods transport. If the water level is below 50 centimeters, all transport by ship must be stopped.

Europe's most important waterway flows 1,232.7 kilometers through Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands before it flows into the North Sea in Europe's largest port, Rotterdam. The Rhine serves as the main shipping route for raw materials such as oil and goods from coal and iron ore to chemicals, fertilizers and auto parts. If shipping comes to a standstill, this drives up the price of oil.

Without an alternative

For some companies there is no alternative to the river. “We get 30 million tons of raw materials from Rotterdam,” says Premal Desai, head of the steel division at ThyssenKrupp. “For Thyssenkrupp Steel, the Rhine is a question of survival.” In the previous year, ThyssenKrupp was forced to restrict deliveries to automobile manufacturers such as Volkswagen. While the company has already bought flat bottom ships, even that isn't a real option. Other companies along the Rhine - from Royal Dutch Shell to BASF - are also intensifying their emergency planning, especially since the hot and dry weather conditions will continue for at least ten days, according to the Maxar weather service. This includes buying smaller boats, booking truck and train capacities, and increasing inventory levels.

In the previous year, the Philippsburg nuclear power plant had to be throttled because there was no cooling water.

Efforts to mitigate the effects of a renewed stop to shipping on the Rhine - which caused Germany and Switzerland to tap into emergency petrol reserves in 2018 - are only stopgap solutions. Because the capacity on the road and on the rail is limited. In addition, transport is much more expensive than by ship and far less environmentally friendly. In addition, due to the upcoming Brexit, there are virtually no warehouses available along the Rhine. The situation is likely to repeat itself in the future, as many studies show. The fact that the construction of large reservoirs in the Alps in the 1960s and 1970s led to less pronounced fluctuations in the water level does nothing to change this.

That is why the industry is now making politicians responsible. Federal Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer said at a meeting of experts in June that low water is damaging the German economy and has consequences for the country's prosperity.

("Die Presse", print edition, July 24th, 2019)